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If Your Friend Writes a Political Rant on Facebook, Will It Change Your Mind?

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, September 4 2012

There's a joke quote circulating on Facebook that goes like this: "'Your relentless political Facebook posts finally turned me around to your way of thinking,' said nobody, ever."

The funny thing is, that might not actually be true.

"People whose friends post some (or a lot of) political content on social networking sites are much more likely to say that they have changed their mind about a political issue or become more involved with a political issue after reading/discussing them on a social network (compared with people whose friends don’t post much political content)," Aaron Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, told me Tuesday via email.

That's based on a Pew study released on Tuesday that explored how social network users feel about political content on the sites they use. And of course, it comes with a few caveats.

"I don’t want to make too much of this correlation," Smith wrote to me. "If you replace 'my friends post about politics on social networking sites' with 'I talk about politics a lot in general' or 'I personally post lots of political material on SNS' you see pretty much exactly the same relationship. Put simply, people with greater exposure to (and interest in) political chatter on online social networks are more likely to change their mind or take action as a result (regardless of who that chatter comes from)."

That's not what the folks at Pew lead with in their report. In fact, their key findings are that a modest 36 percent of social media users say social networking sites are "very important" or "somewhat important" when it comes to keeping up with political news, and that most users of social media sites "say they do not use the sites for political purpose or debates." We didn't get to the numbers that backed this idea until I asked Smith a couple follow-up questions, and he was nice enough to run a cross-tabulation that was not published in the report.

People on social networks tend to say that they don't start political conversations online. But a vast majority also say that their friends, on the other hand, often get political.

Specifically, 30 percent of respondents to this Pew survey said their friends post some political content on social sites, and 36 percent of respondents said their friends posted "just a little." Another nine percent said all or most of their friends' posts were political.

Only 23 percent said their friends posted no political content at all.

Pew takes this to mean that a majority encounters "little or no" politics, which is also true. But a far larger majority encounters some politics online, or at least a little.

While political messages have a wide reach, they have few self-identified carriers. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they share no political content at all on social networking sites.

The report largely reiterates Pew's previous findings, which hold that a small number of highly engaged and partisan people account for the greatest proportion of political chatter on social networks. But it also highlights exactly how much reach these messages can have — with politics occasionally reaching well over two-thirds of social networking site users, according to this survey, and political chatter on social networks appearing to raise the likelihood that people will change their minds on an issue.

% who have changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site
Among SNS users who say at least some of what their friends post is related to politics: 20%
Among SNS users who say none of what their friends post is related to politics: 4%
Among SNS users who say at least some of what they post is related to politics: 29%
Among SNS users who say none of what they post is related to politics: 9%
Among SNS users who discuss politics (in any venue) “very often” or “sometimes”: 21%
Among SNS users who discuss politics (in any venue) “rarely” or “never”: 6%

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Foundation

Among people who said at least some of what their friends post is related to politics, 20 percent also said they changed their views about a political issue after discussing it or reading posts about it on a social networking site, Smith told me. Among users who say none of their friends post political content, that rate is just four percent.

By comparison, twenty-one percent of social networking users who discuss politics in any venue "very often" or "sometimes" also said they had changed their minds after discussing a political issue on social networks. Among people who discussed politics in any venue rarely or never, only six percent reported a change of heart.

In other words, putting political information in front of someone makes that person more likely to change their mind — including on social networks. Maybe those political Facebook posts are persuading people after all.